Imagine a world where checking into the Ritz Hotel in Paris’ Place Vendome leads you to discover that your room has been supplied with the very silk-wrapped pillows you need to prevent your allergy stopping you sleep after your long transatlantic flight. The kind of service only dukes and the crowned heads of Europe could expect? Not according to Neuron Data Inc, the authors of this sumptuous image. What magical technology will enable us mortals to achieve this?
By Gary Flood
The potent combination of Java and something we’ve all been hearing a lot about recently, but may not fully grasp the significance of, business rules. For this combination will usher in a world where companies will finally fully understand their customer’s peculiar and unique requirements, by a combination of more flexible IT systems fully distributed and diffused via the mechanism of the internet. We know what Java is supposed to offer us; but what of business rules? Rules suggests rule based or expert systems, a term about as sensible to put on your product these days as DOS-based! or SAA Compatible! And given that Neuron Data began life as a vendor of an expert system programming environment Nexpert, and that another contender in this nascent market, fellow French based C++ library specialist Ilog SA, has had a rules based component available for some three years, one begins to wonder if business rules are not just a rehash of expert systems.
Definition of business rules
Take this definition of what business rules are from Neuron Data: Business rules embody the ways of conducting business operations and transactions; they describe in a legible format the flexibility of the enterprise’s production, logistics, service delivery and customers communication functions; [and] they reflect the legislation and the regulations of the business environment in which it operates. Sounds an awful lot like the kinds of things that vanished breed of specialists, knowledge engineers, used to have to extract with such expensive consulting pain out of expert heads in the early 1980s – massive backward and forward chaining rule trees. The truth is, though, that business rules are quite different from AI rules, with their roots springing from both the if-then production rule background of rule based programming, plus the kind of work Sybase Inc, pioneered in the late 1980s with database triggers and constraints, and even the business process re-engineering community’s work in the early 1990s. Mark Grice, Neuron Data’s Product Manager for its Rules software, concedes that though most business rule content does currently reside in employee craniums, the majority is in either legacy code (Cobol, or even Visual Basic) or the common or garden databases the company in question may be using.
Policies, practices and procedures
A business rules is simply the policies, practices and procedures by which a company does business, and may be as banal and explicit as If customer stays over a Saturday night, we’ll give them a discount, or If the customer buys over the web, give them a 5% discount. Dave Taber, VP Marketing for Ilog in California, adds that since the problem domain tends to be simpler, a lot of the AI rocket science is just superfluous in the business rule area: You don’t need that heavy-duty pattern matching and filtering stuff for these simple problems, except for a few very weird exceptions. Albeit that Neuron and Ilog have experience in the AI and C++ object world, they stress that they are not offering that kind of gadgetry with their business rule products. Other companies trying to get a piece of the business rules action come from the database world, such as Oakland’s Vision Software Tools Inc, which has its roots in Sybase originally, and Unisys Corp subsidiary USoft Corp, based in Brisbane, CA, which did not return calls in time for this article, but which is believed to be attacking business rules from the angle of 4GL style application development. This makes sense when you think about it, in that an entity-relationship structure is just another way of making explicit a business state or function (ie defining what a department is and how it relates to what a division is, say). But if it was all this simple, how come business rules have become so trendy recently? The answer, as it so frequently is in today’s market, is Java. Tomorrow we will find out what difference this is making to the way companies are thinking about making those policies, practices and procedures more explicit and distributed, and we will also catch up with what Neuron, Ilog and Vision are actually offering users in the way of real product. This will also tell us how far we are from the super-customer friendly world of being able to confidently expecting those allergy-friendly silk pillows every time we check into the Ritz.